Blurb: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan land on a spaceship orbiting a distant and mysterious world, where a human crew lies frozen somewhere between life and death. The planet is the Sense-Sphere, home of the Sensorites, beings of immense intelligence and power. Unable to leave, the Doctor and his companions must deduce the Sensorites' intentions: are they friendly, hostile, or frightened? And what is the deadly secret at the heart of the Sense-Sphere?
Format: Television drama transmitted from June 20, 1964 - August 1, 1964. Released on DVD on February 14, 2012.
Setting: The Sense-Sphere and its environs. The exact date is unknown. We are only told that it's the 28th century, but Lance Parkin's AHistory suggets a date of 2764 in keeping with the convention in these early episodes that the ending two digits of the date coincided with the date of transmission.
Continuity: The crew talks about their trips to prehistoric times (see An Unearthly Child), the Daleks (see The Daleks), Marco Polo (see Marco Polo), Marinus (see the Keys of Marinus), and the Aztecs (see The Aztecs). Susan says that her home planet has a sky the color of burnt orange (see The Invasion of Time). Susan's telepathic powers are further mentioned in Hunters of Earth, Transit of Venus, and The Witch Hunters. The Sense Sphere was later conquered by the Earth Empire in the 30th century (see Original Sin).
DVD: This is another bare bones DVD release. There's an extra on Peter R. Newman, the writer of the story and a featurette on the job of the Vision Mixer, but there isn't a whole lot else. It seems odd that there was no "making of" featurette as quite a few people involved with this production are alive.
Discussion: The Sensorites is one of the oddest stories in early Doctor Who. The Sensorites is where we first see a lot of the classic tropes that will eventually become Doctor Who standards. Yet this is also one of the stories that is plagued by more fluffs and gaffs than just about any other that I can think of. It's a technically competent show but it has one of the worst alien costumes of all time. There are some wonderful themes but then there is some of the worst dialog in the show's history.
First of all, this is Susan's hour to shine. She's been marginalized through much of the series and despite the fact that she had a beautiful relationship with Ping Cho in Marco Polo and then helped save the day in part of the Keys of Marinus she's usually treated as someone to just get into trouble as a story complication. Here we have a little bit of that in the beginning but then we get a confident and daring Susan actually facing down with The Doctor and arguing her own point of view, to be a hostage with an alien race with whom she has developed a relationship and she hopes to be able to negotiate. Then she has some good character moments with the First Elder of the Sensorites, explaining who she is and where she comes from and later in coordinating the rescue with her grandfather. The idea that she has telepathic powers is a really interesting one that has some real potential for future stories (of which the expanded canon of audios and novels has made ample use).
For the rest of the characters it's also the Doctor's turn to shine. The Doctor not only gets to have a parental fight with Susan but we also see his hurt feelings and his ire at the Sensorites whom he believes have driven a wedge between him and her. He's also at the forefront of the search for a cure and goes down into the aqueduct once it becomes clear that there is where the trouble comes from. In fact, some observers have noted that this is when the Doctor actually becomes the Doctor we know. In previous stories the Doctor only solved problems as a means of getting back to the Ship. In this story the Doctor has solved the problem of the plague and the First Elder would have given him access to the TARDIS then. The Doctor goes into the aqueduct because he wants to. Because he's a good man and he wants to solve problems. Ian gets to confront the Sensorites in the beginning and helps the Doctor at the end but is also incapacitated towards the middle when he is infected with the plague. Barbara mainly sits out the story, first being terrorized by John and being left on the ship in episodes four and five so that actress Jacqueline Hill could be given a vacation.
The guest cast is very uneven. Captain Maitland may be one of the worst actors ever on Doctor Who. He delivers his lines all in the same tone and manner. Carol does ok although most of her acting has to do with showing how much in love she is with John and how worried she is about him. It's actually John who gives one of the shining performances here, at least in the early episodes. He has to convey both threat and vulnerability due to the insanity caused by his contact with the Sensorites' telepathy. He does a wonderful job at that and he does a wonderful job of seeming like a confident and charismatic individual once he's "healed" of this malady.
Our other characters are The Sensorites themselves. They're somewhat rare in Doctor Who by having a fully realized race. We hear something of their society and we see that there are good and evil characters in their ranks. The Sensorites' costumes are actually ok from the waste up. They've got a kind of fuzzy beard that grows upwards instead of downwards and covers a hole in their mouth that they speak through. Unfortunately in an effort to convey "alieness" the costume designers made the Sensorites' feet into flat discs. They then linger on these feet when first showing the Sensorites which means that we not only see these ridiculous looking appendages, but we also see a mistake as one of them steps on the other's foot. The Sensorites are all telepathic, which is an interesting concept in itself. As a telepathic race they can communicate with each other, only needing a kind of lens that they carry with them to focus the thoughts into their mind. Their eyes work opposite from ours and have fully expanded pupils in light but contract in darkness. This seems like a really silly thing to have developed as it makes them completely blind in the dark. They also fear loud noises that shock their system and make it hard to concentrate. As aliens that fear loud noise and darkness it makes you instantly sympathize with these somewhat pathetic creatures. The two sides of the Sensorites are mostly exemplified by their First Elder, a kind and benevolent ruler who is very soft spoken and the City Administrator a xenophobic and treacherous Sensorite who sounds harsh and raspy. His performance may be described as over the top but in a way I understand how he'd have to do that to get any performance through his costume. It's interesting to note that apparently treachery and crime were almost unknown to the Sensorites before the humans came. Although it's not stated in the story, I sometimes wonder if it was by telepathic contact with humans that the Sensorites first learned of these concepts and incorporated them into their psyche. In a way that would mean that the humans were detrimental to the Sensorites.
The main theme of the story is the fear of the unknown. The Sensorites fear the humans because they have had dealings with a few in the past who killed themselves and their plague started shortly thereafter. They also saw in John's mind that humans would come to mine the Sense-Sphere if they knew that it was rich in molybdenum. They don't wish to kill them though, so they use their telepathic powers to keep them paralyzed and afraid. The humans fear the Sensorites because of the great power that they have over them. The Doctor and his companions provide the bridge to show that neither side was as formidable and scary as the other believed and it was only that fear that drove a wedge between them. The interesting thing is that we find out in the end that the Sensorites, despite a faction whose fear of the humans has become pathological, are not the enemies at all. The enemy are in fact some of the humans from the first expedition. Left behind on the Sense-Sphere they have become crazed and believe that they are waging a war upon them by poisoning their water supply. This sort of turnabout that the real enemy are the human beings is a nice surprise in 60's fiction where so many of the bad guys were those "unlike us". I also think that the portrayal of the captain is done really well showing that he's gone so crazy that he adheres to a rigid military discipline even when they clearly have no supplies and their uniforms are falling apart.
There are also some beautiful moments technically in the story. The camera follows the TARDIS crew as they leave the TARDIS and keeps on going, giving you a real feeling of stepping into the one realm and into another. The shot at the end of Captain Maitland's ship as it leaves looks really good. It's no wonder that this story was assigned to Mervyn Pinfield to direct as he had been attached to the show as the technical expert. The Sensorite city also looks good. Everything is designed with curves instead of lines which gives it a more fluid shape and shows the gentleness of their society. Even the spaceship looks passable here with a bridge and control stations that you can believe would be on an actual vessel.
There are problems with the story. There are tons of gaffs in the lines. For those who don't know, there could only be four cuts per episode in 1960's Doctor Who so if it was felt that someone got their performance "close enough" then they would just continue recording and move on. So we get regaled with scintillating dialog such as "this watch is the non-winding time", "I rather fancy that's settled that little bit of solution", or "molybd...molb...minerals". There are also some scenes where we have characters looking straight at the camera to say something like the Doctor discussing the plague as Ian begins coughing. He looks at the camera and says "it may be a clue". Then there's the scene where John looks at the camera after meeting the First Elder to announce, "he is a good man" so that those of us at home know that we can at least trust the First Elder. How in the world do Sensorite weapons remove the lock of the TARDIS? Do the Sensorites really all live in one city? You'd think that they'd move away with the plague going on but no discussion of an exodus is ever given. The humans believe that poisoning the city's aqueduct will wipe out the Sensorites but they're insane so maybe that's part of the madness as they never really had a hope of even killing all the Sensorites in the city that way. It seems odd that the Sensorite scientists never noticed that their people were dying of poison instead of a disease and linking the fact that the elders never got sick to their separate water supply. I know that they tested the water but you'd think that they'd have tested multiple locations multiple times in which case they would have found the culprit as the humans kept changing which district they were poisoning. Did the Sensorites really not think anything was strange that a monstrous sound appears in the aqueduct at the same time as the human spaceship blew up and the plague started? What's making those noises anyway? We're never told. Is there really a monster in the caves or are the humans faking it somehow? I will give one plot point a pass. Many commentators have said that the Sensorites can't tell each other apart if they swap sashes. That's not true. They don't "all look the same" to themselves. The issue is whether they'd recognize another Sensorite at a distance or just identify them by their badge of office. Especially if they don't know them this would work. Even in our culture, if we saw someone at a distance in military uniform we would assume that they were a soldier regardless of whether they were or not. Also, am I the only one who has a vague, nagging feeling even before I ever read the novels that as soon as the crazed humans get back to Earth and start mumbling about molybdenum and Maitland can't account for their time missing that Earth is going to send those ships to the Sense Sphere to strip mine the planet bare anyhow?
As one of the DVD extras states, The Sensorites is one of those stories that doesn't get talked about much. Mostly that's because it's a story that just didn't work well. It drags, especially in the first three episodes because you feel like that part of the story could have been over in 2. Things pick up once they get down to the planet but with all the mistakes and gaffs it sometimes overpowers some of the great concepts that are trying to make it through into the story. It is telling though that even though this particular story is never revisited plotwise many of its elements will crop up over and over again. It seems like it was recognized that parts of this worked really well and those ideas would be refined over time.
Final Rating: 5/10
Recommendation: It's all a little bit tedious. There are some great concepts at work here and the revelation that its the humans causing all the trouble feels like the revelation at the end of a Twilight Zone episode. Yet in the end the bad stuff just about balances out the good and its hard not to notice the flaws. This one is definitely skipable.